Robot Algorithm

October 10, 2013

Veep

I had a wild day on the set of Veep yesterday. And when I say "wild," I mean sitting around doing nothing other than watching for 12 hours. It was fascinating and incredibly boring. Yes, I got to spend lots of time practically standing next to Julia Dreyfus, Anna Chlumsky, Tony Hale, Gary Cole, Matt Walsh, and the rest of the cast and crew. But most of it was watching rehearsal after Rehearsal after REHEARSAL, and then watching take after Take after TAKE!!! And in between these rehearsals and takes? Lots of waiting around.

As I've blogged about before, Veep had an episode that would feature table tennis: Episode 3.3, which would be the third episode in season three, which will run sometime early in 2014. They had contacted me, looking for "high-level table tennis players in their 20s." I had helped bring in Khaleel Asgarali, Toby Kutler, and Qiming Chen. (Khaleel, rated 2391, used to be over 2400 and was on the Trinidad National Team; Toby is rated 2154 and used to be over 2200; Qiming, rated 2113, is the University of Maryland Champion and a graduating senior.)

I'm 53 and didn't quite fit the age profile, but they told me to come in anyway. I assumed I was part of the table tennis. However, at about 10PM on Tuesday night all the extras received a long email giving instructions on things such as what to wear, when and where to park and meet, etc. In the listings they had Khaleel, Toby, Qiming, and three others I'd never heard of listed as "Table Tennis Players." I was listed along with two others as "Clovis Custodial Staff." Huh?

I left my house at 5:30 AM and arrived at the parking garage at University of Maryland just before 6AM. I was there early because I didn't want to get stuck in traffic; we were supposed to be there by 7AM. They had a shuttle for the extras starting at 6:30 AM, which took us to the Physical Sciences Building, the site of the shooting, where I'd be from 7AM to well past 7PM. (I believe this was the same building I took computer science classes in when I was an undergraduate there many years ago, but it looked very different now.) They had turned the front of the building, the lobby, and the second floor into "Clovis Corporation." It was pretty extravagant; I wish I had pictures of the setting, but photos weren't allowed. A lot of the stuff involved recreational stuff, including large Lego tables, foosball, some sort of golfing area, and yes, two ping-pong tables.

The ping-pong tables each had a pair of cheap hardbat rackets. But rather than a ping-pong ball, they both had a Koosh ball! This was about 1.5 times the diameter of a ping-pong ball, and very dead. When it bounced on the table it made little noise, and that's why they wanted it. However, to me, it looked very awkward, as there's supposed to be sound when the ball hits the table, and it's supposed to bounce, not die like these balls did, plus it was way too big. With a little practice, you could rally with them, but you had to take the ball right off the bounce (since there was little bounce) and hit it pretty hard to get it over the net. I mentioned there were three people listed as table tennis players I'd never heard of; it turned out they were actors who had put "ping-pong" down as things they were good at. One of them didn't show. The other two were just advanced basement players. They spend much of their time practicing hitting the Koosh ball back and forth.

There was also a large Snack Corner, which was where I'd spend the next twelve hours. Not to eat, but there was a sitting area behind it, and that's where many of the extras sat while waiting for their big moment. When the cameras were pointing the other way (which fortunately was most of the time) we were able to gather behind them and watch the shooting.

When I arrived, I was given a Clovis Corporation t-shirt to wear - white with a large colorful "C" on the front. I was also given a blue apron I was to wear. So much for my dreams of playing table tennis on Veep!

The next twelve hours gradually went from great interest to great boredom. It became obvious the ones doing the casting weren't sure what the ones doing the directing were interested in, and they were interested in people in their 20s, to fit the profile of techies. (I think they modeled "Clovis Corporation" on Google.)  The two others listed as "custodial" were both in their 60s; out of the 50+ extras, we were the only three not to be used. We just sat around all day. There was a 30-minute lunch break where they catered an extravagant feast - extremely well-seasoned chicken (I think Cajun style), what looked like prime rib, fish, all-you-can-eat salad, lots of vegetables, lots of desserts. I was surprised that everyone ate the same food - Julia Dreyfus and the rest of the stars, the directors, and the rest of the actors were right there with the extras. Then it was back to work - or in my case, to sitting around.

What were they actually filming? Basically, Julia (Vice President of the U.S.) and her staff were visiting some high-tech Google-like corporation. There was lots of playful banter between the cast members; Julia mistook some of the recreational activities as child care and launched into a campaign-type speech that got interupted; her assistant, played by Tony Hale, kept whispering things into her ear, often nearly word-for-word what she was being told, and she'd react sarcastically. She was shown around, then there was a short board-type meeting, then they met the big executive with the ping-pong going on in the background. And that got us to 7PM.

During one long break Khaleel and I did an impromptu exhibition with a real ping-pong ball. It got lots of "Oohs!" and "Aahs!", but the only ones that saw it were the extras and lower-level technicians. The main cast and crew were on the other side of the set and I don't think noticed. (It was a big set!)

During the first 2.5 hours they did the opening scene to their arriving at Clovis over and Over and OVER!!! It took that entire time to do what I timed to be a 90-second scene. Then they did the next scene, also about the same length, and it took hours. By the end of the day, with 11.5 hours on set, my guess is they got about five minutes of filming done. But that comes to 30 minutes in five days, and most episodes are about 23 minutes, so perhaps they are ahead of schedule.

While I wasn't getting used, they used Khaleel, Toby, and Qiming almost nonstop - but as regular Clovis employees! For example, in the opening scene, a Clovis director is showing the main cast around, and most of the scene is around two tables with five Clovis employees working at computers - and three of them were Khaleel, Toby, and Qiming. (This was done about 30 times over 2.5 hours.) Later there was a scene where they are meeting some Clovis executive, and all three of them were told to walk by in the background. It was kind of funny watching one of the assistant directors time when to send them. Qiming walked alone; they sent Toby and Khaleel together. They did this about 20 times, so they got lots of exercise.

During the scene where they are meeting the Clovis executive two of the actors who were listed as having "table tennis skills" were playing in the background. (It was a LOT of playing since they did the scene over and Over and OVER.) The irony is that this was the scene were Khaleel, Toby, and Qiming were walking by in the background, right past the table. So while they had the amateurs playing ping-pong, the real players walked by. However, we were told that they'd be playing some tomorrow. I was also told how the table tennis scene will culminate - but I think I'm sworn to secrecy. Let's just say that Julia will get involved, and it won't end well for her. (No, it's not something as simple as her getting beaten by a top player! If you ask me in person, I may be able to tell you what happens to her. Remember, this is a comedy.)

At the end of the day the extras had lots of paperwork to do, and then lots of waiting in line (almost an hour for me) to get our forms validated so they can mail us our checks. The normal rate for extras is $75 for nine hours work (so $8.33/hour), and 1.5 times that rate after nine hours (so $12.50/hour) Because we were listed as having "special skills," Qiming, Toby, and Khaleel all got double pay (so $16.66/hour), and for the 2.5 hours past nine hours, triple pay ($25/hour). I wasn't listed for that, but after I argued my case, and pointed out that I'd help bring in the three real players, they put me down as having a "special skill," even though I wasn't going to use it in the show except as an informal advisor. Then I drove home, returning around 8:30 PM - 15 hours after I'd left.

I was invited to come back today, but decided against it. First, I dreaded spending another 15 hours on this, most of it sitting around. Once you've hobnobbed with Julia and the others for a day it gets kind of old. Second, I've got lots and lots of things I need to work on, both table tennis and various writing projects. And third, I was EXHAUSTED. Yes, spend 15 hours like this and you'd be tired too.

I'll check with the three on what happened today and report back. Meanwhile, set your calendars for sometime in 2014 to watch the exciting table tennis action on Veep!

2013-2014 NCTTA League

Here's USATT Board Member Kagin Lee's blog about the upcoming NCTTA season.

Fundamentals of a Close to Table Game

Here's the article from Table Tennis Master.

Tips for Playing Against Antispin

Here's the article from Table Tennis Master.

Five Peculiarities to Become a Great TT Player (Revisited)

On Tuesday I linked to this somewhat tongue in cheek video. Here's a blog about it from Expert Table Tennis.

MIT Working on Robot Table Tennis Algorithm

Here's the article and links from Table Tennis Nation. Our Table Tennis Masters are in development, and soon even the Chinese National Team will have to bow before our Robot Ping-Pong Warlords!

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